Excellence does not require perfection.—Henry James

The Rev. Susan Finster stood at the back of the church greeting her parishioners at the end of her first “real” sermon at her first “real” parish. After seven years as an associate pastor at two congregations, she had started the day excited about her first Sunday as the new senior pastor of Miles Road Church. The service went well, and from all accounts the sermon was well received. Susan took to heart the compliments from the members.

“Great sermon, Pastor,” said a member of the search committee.

“Well done,” a deacon added.

“Thank you,” a young mother said. “That’s just what we needed to hear.”

But not 20 minutes later Susan found herself in her office, weeping. She was replaying the sermon in her head, focusing on points in her delivery she thought were poorly done. She wondered if anyone had noticed that her pulpit robe was too large. She fought back a familiar queasy feeling in her stomach that was always accompanied by a small critical voice that asked, “Who do you think you are, anyway?” Fighting the conflicting emotions that boiled up, Susan ended the morning angry at her inability to celebrate the day and her accomplishments. She wondered again at this constant feeling of inadequacy.

Clergy have one of the most challenging careers anyone could hope for. And despite theologies of grace and calling to servanthood, congregations expect performance from clergy. This expectation to perform and to get “results” can become a point of personal and congregational anxiety. Poorly managed, such discomfort can result, ultimately, in clergy burnout, termination, and congregational frustration. It does not help that American congregations live within, and often share, a culture whose values reflect corporate “bottom-line” attitudes and expectations of leadership. As a result, clergy themselves often take on these performance expectations.

I have identified, among leaders in both secular and religious contexts, what I’ve come to call “the myth of competence.”

The myth of competence is the attitude, fed by chronic anxiety, that engenders the belief that personal self-worth, relevance, and meaning reside in external definitions and assurances of being competent in all that one does. It manifests itself in ways of functioning and relating in the church that can result in burnout and depression.

What the Myth is Not
I do not imply certain understandings, nor should they be inferred, when I speak of “the myth of competence.” First, I don’t mean that incompetence should be tolerated in congregational ministry. In fact, for clergy in a senior leadership position, tolerating incompetence merely ensures that it won’t be long before the congregation loses its best people. Neither do I mean that we should not be good at what we do. We should, in fact, be setting an example of doing our best for the Lord and the church, employing our gifts and talents.

The myth of competence does not mean that we should refrain from challenging people to higher standards, or fail to hold them accountable to clearly communicated performance expectations. We should not make excuses for laziness. Truth be told, lazy people can have a great capacity to use good theory to poor ends. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard people use the concept of self-differentiation to say, in effect, “That’s not my job,” or “I don’t want to overfunction.”

The Roots of the Myth
The myth of competence is a particular occupational hazard that haunts people in leadership, in both corporate and ministry contexts. The myth stems from issues related to a sense of self-worth, a personal formative history, a deficient belief system, and a lack of fully realized self-differentiation, or self-actualization. The myth also involves the context and relationships in which leaders find themselves.

If Susan is to overcome her tendency to embrace and function out of the myth of competence, she will need to realize that the myth operates at both personal and systemic levels. While it resides at the individual level, it is also a systemic issue: it manifests itself fully in how a person functions and relates to others at corporate levels. The myth shows itself in relationships at work, in the family, and in social and community environments.

Susan has long suspected that her nagging feelings of inadequacy began when she was a child. She’s not far off the mark. Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development demonstrates that issues of competence are central during a formative stage of life. Erikson called the fourth stage of development “industry vs. inferiority.” This stage occurs during our elementary school years. At this developmental stage we become keenly aware for the first time, overtly, of family emotional processes, including parental expectations, the performance demands of school, and messages from peers. Participation in competitive sports only serves to confirm that we are not all created equal in skills and abilities.

Because of the nature of congregational relationship systems, people who function from a belief in the myth of competence are susceptible to unhealthy relational and communication patterns. Those pathologies take advantage especially of leaders who fail to act from a strongly self-differentiated stance. These leaders are ripe prospects for chronic anxiety in various manifestations—“hostage-taking” (“If you don’t perform better, we will judge you”), a myopic focus on issues and content (“It’s the pastor’s preaching that’s the problem”), “identified patient” strategies (“It’s the pastor who’s the problem”), and feelings of dependence (“I’d better not rock the boat; no one else will accept me if I fail here”).

Symptoms of the Myth
People who buy into the myth of competence suffer predictable symptoms. For Susan, the ones that often got her into trouble as an associate were oversensitivity to criticism and inappropriate responses to flattery. The former gave “power” to the critics in the system and derailed her ability to provide vision. The latter tended to make her emotionally dependent and susceptible to seduction.

Other symptoms include a hypercritical attitude toward others’ successes or failures, and a tendency toward blaming (which puts the focus on “others” and fosters “deflecting” repertoires like excuse-making and passive-aggressive behaviors.) Negative feelings about competition are symptoms, as are feelings of persecution, inadequacy, insecurity, and “shame.”

The myth of competence makes some clergy reluctant to take risks. This hesitance leads to a failure in leadership and can, in turn, contribute to a lack of personal and institutional growth. Ultimately such clergy are unable to provide vision, often engaging instead in “poll-taking” leadership and never-ending consensus building. Others ultimately tend toward reclusiveness and timidity, as well as overfunctioning or underfunctioning.

The Paradox of the Myth
Clergy and congregations can fall victim to societal values that focus on success (typically meaning more and bigger) and “results.” Miles Road Church, Susan’s new congregation, has a reputation for demanding top-rate performance from its clergy and staff. It is also known to hold high expectations for the standard of worship (especially the preaching), the excellence of the day school, the use and appearance of the buildings, and the quality of programs.

Maintaining high standards is a desirable corporate value, but when it is motivated by anxiety it can the trap clergy or congregations in the myth of competence. In that case, the drive to maintain standards becomes the drive for perfection (or the appearance of perfection). Such attitudes
embody a certain paradox. Rather than resulting in confidence in the leader, they result in insecurity (you can’t always “act” your way into a new reality, which is what Susan found herself doing). Rather than resulting in effective leadership, insistence on near-perfection results in weak leadership because it feeds into “sick” systemic forces driven by anxiety. Rather than liberating the leader, it oppresses—having to be “perfect” all the time is exhausting! Rather than enabling vision, the standard of perfection fosters myopia because leaders focus on their performance, as judged by other people’s expectations.

The paradox of the myth of competence is that rather than generating freedom, it leads toward controlling behavior, since a leader focused on competence has little tolerance for honest criticism. When the focus of leadership is on the appearance of competence, it results not in personal and congregational growth but in stagnation. Once we find the comfort zone of a repertoire or “bag of tricks,” we will tend to stick with it and not risk opening ourselves to the challenges of growth.

While those who live by the myth of competence can maintain the façade for a while, the end product is the opposite of what is desired. Rather than resulting in maturity, this mode of leadership leads to dependence. Leaders whose primary aim is to appear competent always have their radar turned on, scanning for other people’s approval. Rather than resulting in differentiation, this approach results in enmeshment as we become overdependent on the system to provide affirmation of our self-worth, our values, and our vision. Ultimately, rather than focusing on functioning better, we become preoccupied with appearances. Leaders whose drive comes from the myth of competence are more concerned with appearing competent than with leading effectively. They’d rather receive the affirmation of congregants than engage in challenging the congregation’s system toward maturity, growth, and integrity.

Moving Toward Wholeness
How do we move beyond swallowing whole the myth of competence? For individuals, overcoming the myth may be a lifelong struggle, especially for people like Susan. On a corporate level, systemic anxiety, dysfunctional relationships, and power issues complicate the picture. Perhaps the most productive starting point for moving toward wholeness begins with the leader. Here are some suggestions:

  • First, confess incompetence. Given what we are called to do in ministry, we are all inadequate to the task.
  • Adopt a functional theology of grace. Living with the myth of competence may express the lack of ability to receive grace, leading often to an inability to extend grace.
  • Make personal excellence and relevance the standard of your ministry, not competence. There is a qualitative difference between a driving desire to appear competent and a commitment to excellence. Excellence involves setting standards based on your own values and principles rather than working to meet other people’s expectations. The chart below contrasts these two postures.
  • Accept failure as progress toward a goal. You know you’re doing better if you are willing to accept the risk of failure as a step in the process of achieving goals and visions. Leadership requires vision, vision calls for risk, and failure is often the price paid en route to realizing one’s vision. Learn to risk the cost.
  • Seek to understand the source of the myth of competence in your life. One’s family of origin is a good place to look. Where and from whom did you get the message that you were not good enough? That you would “never amount to anything”? Children whose parents live vicariously through them are prime candidates for the myth of competence.
  • Redefine the role of leadership. Leadership is not being perfect, or infallible, or “strong,” or authoritative, or “the best” or “most important.” Leadership is about providing the appropriate functions needed by the church at the right time, promoting health, maturity, and differentiation in others. It means challenging the system more than it means keeping people happy.

Given what we are called to do—preach like a golden-tongued angel every Sunday; run an organization efficiently, using a volunteer force and depending on donors’ generosity; afflict the comfortable; give care to souls that may be unwilling and unmotivated; lift a countercultural prophetic voice in an often hostile (or worse, apathetic) culture; and act as God’s presence at all times and in all places—given all these demands, we will always be inadequate. No one is competent by oneself to do all that is required for successful ministry. The good news for the Rev. Susan Finster, and for us, is that we are not called to do it alone, and that our primary calling is not to results, but to faithfulness.